Archive for July, 2011

crowdsourcing for a cause

How can crowdsourcing help people in need, or help further a good cause?

Crowdsourcing is a buzzword in industry right now, and large groups of people are earning money online doing everything from verifying business listings to designing logos.  There’s plenty of debate about whether crowdsourcing is fair to workers, and how to make these platforms most effective and fair.  But crowdsourcing be also be used in a number of not-for-profit situations.  The projects below are examples of several innovative ways that people are reaching out to help others via crowdsourcing technologies–and ways that you can, too.

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buying local vs. eating less meat

Lots of my friends are “locavores” — people who try to buy their food from somewhere nearby, rather than importing it from far away.  One reason they cite is environmental friendliness — transporting food takes energy, which mean releasing greenhouse gasses.  Eating local is one way to reduce your carbon footprint.

A recent analysis, however, summarized by Andrew Winston of the Harvard Business Review, points out that far more energy goes into growing food for the average U.S. household than transporting it:

  • 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

Also of note: lamb is far worse for the environment than beef, which is far worse than other common meat products.  The same graph compares the energy used to produce a number of foods.

Of course, there’s no reason not to do both things to help the environment — buy more produce from local sources and eat less meat and dairy.  But if you find yourself weighing the costs and benefits in order to decide when and whether to buy local or eat red meat in a given case, keep in mind the relative contributions to your carbon footprint.

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garbage disposals vs. garbage bins

There are many problems with landfills — even the biodegradable trash that ends up there produces a harmful greenhouse gas, methane, as it breaks down.  Fortunately, many cities now have recycling programs and even composting programs to help reduce landfill waste.  But household composting is still far from ubiquitous.  In the absence of having a compost bin, is it better to put food waste down the garbage disposal or in the trash?

Putting food down the garbage disposal keeps it out of the landfill, but putting it into the water treatment system is not necessarily a good thing.  Grease and fats cause lots of problems, including burst pipes and sewage leaks.  Non-greasy food waste particles can also end up in freshwater and harm aquatic life.  Water treatment to remove food waste requires chemicals, and the process releases methane (rather than the CO2 that would be released during composting).  However, some water treatment plants make use of the methane and/or solid waste for green purposes.  So the best answer depends on your local circumstances.  However, there are a few consistent rules to follow:

The research is unambiguous about one point, though: Under normal circumstances, you should always compost if you can. Otherwise, go ahead and use your garbage disposal if the following conditions are met: First, make sure that your community isn’t running low on water. (To check your local status, click here.) Don’t put anything that is greasy or fatty in the disposal. And find out whether your local water-treatment plant captures methane to produce energy. If it doesn’t—and your local landfill does—you may be better off tossing those mashed potatoes in the trash.

If you live in Cambridge, MA, someone has already done your legwork for you, and explains how to do this research in your own region:

The MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resource Authority] focuses on green methods. The methane is used and the solid waste is used. The water is treated, de-chlorinated and diffused into the water system. The only things that go to the landfill are large non-organic items that weren’t supposed to make it into the water system….

Here’s the final count [for Cambridge, MA]:
Best option
: Compost
Next best
: Sink disposal
: Trash/Landfill

Also, if your city doesn’t offer compost, but does give you yard waste bins, you can give them a call to find out if they’ll accept fruit and vegetable waste as well.

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